Fun With Vote Machines

Pima County Dems claim election procedures were violated when an elections worker broke a server seal

The Pima County Democratic Party says a security breach on the morning of the Nov. 7 election put 107,804 early ballots in danger of tampering and was a violation of a security agreement.

But Pima County officials say the breach, which occurred when county elections workers broke the seal on a server, was warranted in order to quickly fix a broken voting machine.

A Nov. 8 letter from Pima County Democratic Party Chair Donna Branch-Gilby, addressed to Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Board of Supervisors Chair Richard Elias, demands that all 107,804 early ballots--the ballots already counted and on the server when the seal was broken--be recounted to assure accuracy. (In a subsequent party meeting, the Democrats agreed to drop the recount request.)

The incident took place before 6 a.m., when a voting precinct reported to Pima County elections that a data card crucial to the precinct's only voting machine was dead. Elections worker Bryan Crane, a registered Republican, called Nelson, who is not registered with any party, and suggested that he break the seal to quickly reprogram the card.

"Mr. Crane's action is an insult to the integrity of the election, and cries out for a remedy," Branch-Gilby said in her letter. "I propose that you arrange for the 107,804 early ballots which have been scanned to date to be securely stored and rescanned in their entirety in the presence of Democratic observers, with proper security measures taken to ensure the integrity of the vote totals."

According to an agreement made on Oct. 24 between the Democrats and county elections officials, a party representative must be notified if the seal on the server is broken. That is, unless an emergency comes up.

"Basically, without that card, the machine is dumb," said Pima County's information technology guru John Moffatt, registered as a Democrat. Without the card, Precinct 377 was inoperable.

The Democrats, however, don't feel this called for emergency action, says Pima County Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner.

"As far as we're concerned, it doesn't add up," Risner said.

Pima County Democratic Party Corresponding Secretary Mohur Sidhwa said she arrived at the county elections' brand-new central count center at around 6:30 a.m. in the days leading up to the election to observe early ballot counting. She even offered Crane her mobile phone number should anything arise.

"And why didn't they call me? I'm here this early every morning. What makes them think I wouldn't show up now?" Sidhwa said.

Pima County recently moved its election count operations from the eighth floor of the county's downtown administration tower to a former records-storage warehouse in the county's dreary public works complex on Mission Road near 22nd Street. Nelson says the move was made to provide room for the federally funded touch-screen machines and an arsenal of security devices. Take the $25,000 door system that even Pima County Sheriff's Department officers need a specific pass for, or the 16 video cameras that were installed around the facility, Moffatt said.

Moffatt says everything is on the up and up. He reviewed the surveillance footage on Election Day, which showed Crane breaking the seal, starting the server and then shutting the machine down.

Also, Moffatt said elections workers ran a vote count later on Election Day, which was the same as another report run at 6 p.m. the day prior.

"There's no doubt, that machine was secure," Moffatt said. "The numbers from the night before were the same the day of the election."

Branch-Gilby's letter explains that the county's Diebold AccuVote machines include a secure ballot drop box in case the machine malfunctions. Poll workers are trained to call county elections to fix the problem, and then run the ballots through the machine, Branch-Gilby said.

"I, myself, was a poll worker, and Brad himself ... trained us to use that in case something happens," Branch-Gilby said. "This emergency didn't exist. There were provisions in place."

Branch-Gilby's letter pointed out an incident at Precinct 226 that she thought was similar. In that case, poll workers used the secure ballot box until elections officials showed up.

Not so, says Nelson. The machine there had a paper jam, and ballots could still be entered. The machine at Precinct 377 was completely down.

"It was the same? Tell that to the folks at 377. They didn't have a working machine," Nelson said.

Nelson agreed in his Nov. 9 written response to Branch-Gilby's letter that the length of time it took county officials to contact political parties about the breach was an error. Nelson said he notified Moffatt at 11 a.m., five hours after the incident occurred. Moffatt then contacted the political parties.

Nelson's letter concluded that the 107,804 ballots have been marked, but they would not be recounted. That's all fine with Pima County GOP Chair Judi White.

"I don't think the removal of the seal changed the election in any way. The election was sound," White said.

The magnitude of the card debacle required emergency measures, she believed. "You have to let the people do the job. You can't interfere. Mr. Crane did his job, and it was appropriate. That's the end of it," she said.

Branch-Gilby says this incident is just one on a laundry list of complaints she and her party has against Nelson's department, reciting several incidents where party observers questioned election workers' security practices.

At about 9 p.m. on the night of the election, outgoing Democratic State Rep. Ted Downing stormed the count center demanding that three elections employees who are not U.S. citizens be removed from the building, citing a policy in the Arizona Secretary of State's policy manual requiring poll workers to be registered voters. However, the three employees were not poll workers. Also, all received specific approval from the secretary of state and went through a rigorous background check. According to Nelson, Branch-Gilby later farmed that story out to the Arizona Daily Star.

In another instance, Branch-Gilby recalled an election where party observers watched poll workers transport a box of ballots wrapped in household tape. The observers were quick to point out their concerns.

"Should we have to tell him he should be using tamper-evident tape?" Branch-Gilby said. She went on to say she felt Nelson was overextending himself by training almost all poll workers instead of delegating responsibility.

Most problematic is the dilution of transparency in the election's process, Branch-Gilby said.

"We have a right to know what's going on here. This department seems to be getting worse at that," Branch-Gilby said.

Nelson said his biggest time crunch in the days leading up to the election comes from people seeking information.

"I've got reporters, party officials--everyone wants to know numbers and progress. What I really need is a PIO (public information officer)," Nelson said.

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